News analysis

Facts no longer seem to matter in campaigns

People taking part in a "Remain" Rally in Trafalgar Square, London, on June 21. PHOTO: EPA

LONDON • Truth is the first casualty of war, and seldom has this old saying been more applicable than in the current British referendum campaign on the European Union.

For with barely a day left before voting booths open tomorrow, both the Brexit camp, which wants Britain out of the EU, and the "Remain" camp, which advocates its continued EU membership, rely on myths and even outright lies to bolster their case. Nor are these the traditional embellishments of electoral campaigns, for in the current referendum debate, facts no longer seem to matter at all; the battle is simply about who dominates the narratives.

The Brexit camp was by far the bigger user of fabrications, perhaps because it had to fight against economists and politicians, all claiming that a British exit would be a disaster. So the Brexiters simply invented their own statistics.

In their broadcast ads and on the sides of the "battle bus" which ferried its leaders across the country, the Brexit camp proclaimed that Britain "sends" £350 million (S$690 million) a week in contributions to EU coffers, a vast amount which, as Brexiters pointed out, could be spent on Britain's health and education rather than on foreigners.

The figure was nonsense: The real amount is around £230 million a week, and even that does not include the money Britain gets back from the EU in the form of various subsidies and grants.

Another lie put forward by the Brexit camp was that Britain should leave the EU because its citizens would otherwise be drafted into a future "European Army".

"I am concerned that the Army which I was in for 45 years could become very damaged," intoned Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, who commanded all of Britain's armed forces, in announcing that he supports the Brexit camp.

The only snag is that this EU army does not exist and cannot be created without Britain's explicit approval, which will never be given, as Mr Fabrice Pothier, one of Europe's best strategists, once pointed out. The whole discussion about a European Army is similar to talk about the Loch Ness monster: Like the mysterious beast which supposedly lurks in a Scottish lake, the European Army "emerges once in a while, yet is just fantasy".

But the biggest myth Brexiters put forward was that Turkey is about to join the EU. The claim is not only false - countries such as Germany and France are already on record as opposing its entry - but outright racist as well: What the Brexiters are really saying is that Turkey's 75 million-strong Muslim population would be free to settle in Britain, and that the only way this can be stopped is by quitting the EU.

The government-led Remain camp also occasionally succumbed to the temptation of peddling half- truths. Prime Minister David Cameron warned, for instance, that if Britons vote to leave the EU, their government would no longer be able to shield state pensions from inflation, a bizarre assertion to make. Finance Minister George Osborne also unveiled a "Punishment Budget" which would supposedly be introduced soon after Britain chose to leave the EU.

  • Rival camps' claims: Fact or fiction?

  • Brexit claim: Britain pays £350 million (S$690 million) a week to Europe.

    Fact: True figure is £230 million, and net transfer figure is lower still.

    Brexit claim: Turkey is about to join the European Union.

    Fact: Turkey has negotiated membership for half a century and is nowhere near completion; 14 out of 35 main negotiation topics between the EU and Turkey are blocked and will remain so.

    Brexit claim: The EU is so corrupt that even its auditors have refused to sign its accounts for decades.

    Fact: All EU budgets have been fully audited and approved since 2007.

    Remain camp claim: Out of the EU, British retirees would lose the inflation indexation on pensions.

    Fact: Not necessarily; that is up to the British government, which guarantees the indexation in the first place.

  • Jonathan Eyal

Still, there is no question that it was the Brexit camp which benefited most from this "battle of lies". For although most of what Brexiters said was quickly debunked by politicians and a variety of impartial websites set up specifically for this purpose, the lies dominated discussions on the hustings, and that worked in the Brexiters' favour.

It did not matter that Brexiters were caught lying about how much Britain pays the EU; the discussion itself highlighted the fact that the financial transfers are big, and that helped the anti-EU camp. Nor did it matter that Turkey will never join the EU; by merely raising the prospect, Brexiters made sure the topic of immigration, the one area where they held an advantage, was constantly in the forefront of the debate.

Brexiters were also helped by the fact that, in a Europe of 28 states, there is always an idealist or a fool who urges the EU to create an army or merge all nations into one. Nobody pays too much attention to such people but their statements are on record, so Brexiters could quote them as though they were true warnings of things to come.

Ultimately, both lies and truths did not matter much, since Britain's EU referendum debate generated much heat, but remained essentially fact-free. Unsurprisingly, the referendum is not about statistics or reasonable arguments; it's about emotions and the self-identity of the nations which inhabit the British Isles.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2016, with the headline Facts no longer seem to matter in campaigns. Subscribe